Metal maestro Rob Zombie has a somewhat checkered history as a horror filmmaker. Critics complained that House of 1000 Corpses was too derivative. His Halloween remake was half of a good movie and the sequel’s ugliness overpowered some of its more interesting ideas.
Released on July 22, 2005, The Devil’s Rejects is still Zombie’s best-received effort among critics. A small box office hit, it’s also Zombie’s most appreciated film among horror fans. In the years that have followed since its release, The Devil’s Rejects still stands out as shocking and well-made piece of exploitation cinema.
70’s Exploitation Violence At Its Best
Like Eli Roth, Rob Zombie clearly has an affection for 1970’s exploitation cinema. Yet few horror filmmakers have an eye for that era’s aesthetics like Zombie. Even if you agree that House of 1000 Corpses bordered more on being derivative than a homage, it’s hard to argue that Zombie doesn’t know how an exploitation film looks and feels.
…it’s hard to argue that Zombie doesn’t know how an Exploitation film looks and feels.
The Devil’s Rejects is indeed the perfect 70’s exploitation splatter film. Released at the tail end of the ‘Torture Porn‘ cycle of the 2000’s, The Devil’s Rejects melds that’s familiar grainy cinematography with almost obscene levels of violence. Whether it’s the horrific imagery lingering in the background during the opening credits or the in-your-face violence of the climax, Zombie refuses to relent or compromise on what he commits to the screen. It’s a transgressive symphony of social taboos stacked up and ceremoniously knocked down.
The Firefly’s Motel siege on the Banjo and Sullivan band is Zombie at his best. Certainly the metal madman knows how to orchestrate his onscreen carnage. But Zombie’s films haven’t always been as good at generating genuine scares and suspense. That’s not the case with The Devil’s Rejects’ second act. Zombie really ratchets up the tension in these moments. All the disturbing violence is also accompanied by a feeling of real peril for its characters.
Zombie also has a much better gift for making his violence feel cinematic as compared to some of his contemporaries, including Eli Roth. The Devil’s Rejects is bookended by two fantastically over-the-top shootouts. Zombie gives his terror trio one of the best film send-offs in horror film history.
‘Tutti-Fucking-Fruity’ Ice Cream
The Devil’s Rejects technically positions itself as a direct sequel to House of 1000 Corpses, while abandoning much of its predecessor’s narrative core. Most notably, Zombie ditches the supernatural elements of his directorial debut with neither an appearance nor a mention of ‘Dr. Satan.’ Instead Zombie opts for a more grounded approach in The Devil’s Rejects, aligning the film more closely with 70’s fare like The Last House on the Left. It’s a smart story direction, immediately setting the sequel apart from its predecessor, which suffered from tonal inconsistency.
Instead Zombie opts for a more grounded approach in The Devil’s Rejects, aligning the film more closely with 70’s fare like The Last House on the Left.
If The Devil’s Rejects is transgressive with its violence and willingness to flaunt several social taboos, Zombie also gets a little subversive with his storytelling in the sequel. The Firefly’s are thrust into the limelight from the opening credits and take centre stage in cinematic history’s most demented road trip. No bland and interchangeable protagonists in this go-around. Otis Driftwood, Baby Firefly, and Captain Spaulding are the stars. By the time they’re ordering ‘tutti-fucking-fruity’ ice cream, you get the distinct impression that Zombie wants you to like these people. And it actually kind of works.
In most horror sequels, The Firefly’s are the villains and Sheriff Wydell is the justified avenger. Yet somehow Zombie subverts this expectation and positions the Firefly’s as arguably the most unexpected antiheroes in recent memory. It’s a role reversal that works in part due to the charismatic performances from its leads (Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, and Sheri Moon Zombie). By the aforementioned final police shootout, Zombie has effectively cast The Firefly’s as some demented version of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ for a generation raised on serial killer culture.
No Banjo and Sullivan on This Soundtrack
Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson – these are filmmakers who have a knack for picking just the right music for a scene. Not surprisingly, Rob Zombie is also pretty adept at using music to evoke just the right mood for any moment.
The incongruent juxtaposition of The Allman Brothers’ Midnight Rider playing over the credits while The Firefly’s leave behind a grotesque house of horrors sets a unique tone for the rest of the film. Zombie’s southern-fried soundtrack makes a perfect backtrack for his hillbilly anti heroes. With Joe Walsh’s Rocky Mountain Way playing as The Firefly’s party it up, you almost don’t feel bad for wanting to sing along with them. Lastly, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better use in a movie of Lynryd Skynryd’s Free Bird.
An Uncompromising Horror Classic
To date, The Devil’s Rejects remains Zombie’s best directorial effort. While The Lords of Salem showed some creative growth and a surprising amount of restraint, it still felt like Zombie imitating other filmmakers. In contrast, The Devil’s Rejects is pure Zombie. It’s the kind of uncompromising, take-no-prisoners approach to film-making that launched Wes Craven’s approach. It also marked a huge creative leap forward for Zombie as a filmmaker. Truth be told, it sort of feels like Zombie has been in a creative holding pattern since The Devil’s Rejects. With the belated sequel, 3 From Hell, coming soon, Zombie fans can hope that another visit with The Firefly’s might be what Zombie needs for another creative leap forward.